The world is opening up again, slowly but surely, and soon the high street will start to look a little bit more like it did in the ‘before’ times.
For many people, this gradual easing of rules will come as a relief. Akin to a door being opened to a thousand new possibilities they will never take for granted ever again.
But for others, the sense of things loosening up again – of slowly filling shopping centres and a steadily escalating calendar of social plans – doesn’t feel quite as appealing. Adding up to a loss of control rather than a regaining of it.
For a shaky period of time when I was a young student, I suffered from agoraphobia, a condition that severely impacted my abilities to work, study, socialise and generally live the sort of life you’d imagine a 20-year-old to live.
During this time, I would often feel unable to go to the corner shop by myself, and would go into a complete panic at the thought of simply being outside alone on campus, or walking into a crowded room of people without a familiar arm to cling onto.
I quit my supermarket job as I spent most of the time hiding in the loo away from the bright glare of the non-stop public. I missed parties and career talks alike. During lectures, I’d always make sure to sit right at the very back, so that I could just dash out unnoticed back to my room if I needed to.
Fortunately, after many years of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and plenty of support, I’ve managed to overcome such intense fears for the most part. Until very recently, I’d regarded the girl I once was as a different person entirely.
Seeing the roadmap out of lockdown filled me with joy in many ways. In fact, the knowledge that I will soon be able to just nip round to a friend’s house without a second thought floods me with a year’s worth of smiles and laughter every time I think about it.
However, the reality of what this will entail is bringing back echoes I’d assume I’d long since silenced. I’ve started to worry about how I’ll fare once I’ve got to navigate the outside world again, whether the good work I’ve put my absolute all into in recent years will be undone.
A new part of me fears that the younger version of me will take over once again, leading me to tense up to bursting point at moments when I should finally be relaxing and making new memories. Sadly, I know I’m far from the only one to find myself fighting this particular type of demon.
Last year, various experts expressed concern about the impact the ongoing coronavirus pandemic would have on those with agoraphobia, as well as for those at risk of developing agoraphobia, with the constant shifts and uncertainty having the potential to exacerbate existing anxieties.
These concerns are reflected in the experiences of many people. Even just the briefest sweep through social media led me to endless recent mentions of agoraphobia, many tied in with thoughts about the pandemic and lockdown easing.
Sometimes this term will be used in a light-hearted way – thrown about as a catch-all word for generally feeling like a recluse – but oftentimes you can feel the genuine fear in the few short sentences thrust out into the world.
Although the pandemic has indeed been stressful for everyone, an agoraphobia sufferer may well experience additional concerns, with increased anxiety and isolation potentially aggravating existing symptoms.
Of course, no two experiences are the same, but after more than a year of being told the world beyond our homes in unsafe, I wanted to know how others who’ve experienced agoraphobia are now coping with the imminent prospect of restrictions being lifted.
I spoke with Rachael, a 24-year-old from Pennsylvania who writes candidly about her experiences of agoraphobia on her blog, Surviving Agoraphobia.
Rachael told UNILAD she’d managed to graduate college without any symptoms. But then, in 2018, she developed agoraphobia. Her condition left her ‘basically home bound’, only ever venturing as far as the grocery store five minutes from her house.
Interestingly, lockdown actually gave Rachael the push she needed to finally seek help:
With the lockdown I feel like it made others worse but for me it did the opposite. I started getting help and taking medication.
I never went to therapy before because I could never bring myself to go outside of my comfort zone to see someone. With the lockdown everything was through the phone so it made it easier for me.
Therapy has helped Rachael realize ‘how to treat [herself]’. Still being fairly new to therapy, Rachael has started undergoing exposure therapy and taking medication, and has also been working on breathing techniques.
Rachael has described herself as being ‘actually very lucky’ as she is paid to care for her mother, who suffers from a lot of illnesses and can’t be left by herself.
Many people with agoraphobia sadly won’t have such flexible working conditions, and some sufferers reading this will be preparing to return to a hectic office or bustling store.
However, despite her personal situation, Rachael has not yet prepared herself for everything opening up again, explaining:
I’m nervous for things to open up because I don’t want to get COVID and I don’t like crowds so it will be an adjustment for me.
Concerns have also been raised about lockdown potentially bringing out symptoms in those who previously haven’t suffered from agoraphobia, but were perhaps vulnerable to developing it.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Viva had been ‘sociable and extroverted’, and had even ‘enjoyed being a part of a large crowd’.
[I enjoyed] feeling a part of humanity, attending large events such as conferences, concerts, networking shopping, and commuting.
Everything changed during lockdown, and Viva found that she had begun experiencing agoraphobia:
I’ve been having constant nightmares about going out: being in supermarkets, malls, big events. People around me in my dream would be walking close to me not wearing masks, then I would panic and wish I just stayed at home instead.
Viva admitted that she does feel anxious about restrictions being lifted, remarking, ‘there is still COVID, it hasn’t gone away’:
There are people who don’t believe that COVID is real. What if I run into them? Going out into the outside world in COVID times can make others have short fuses. Their tempers rise and they attack others. It is a world I am not ready to face yet.
Considering how things will change for her once lockdown ends, Viva added:
I will most probably continue doing things I’ve been used to doing, staying safe at home. I wouldn’t like to get infected with COVID and I wouldn’t want to infect others with it.
When I take the vaccine, maybe that would be the only time I would feel safe to go out and I would ease back into the extrovert and sociable person that I used to be.
UNILAD spoke with Dave Smithson, Operations Director for Anxiety UK, about the impact the pandemic has had on people’s mental health in general, with many people who’ve never before experienced anxiety suddenly presenting symptoms.
According to Dave, often those unfamiliar with the physical symptoms of anxiety – for example, shortness of breath – will mistake these frightening occurrences for early signs of coronavirus.
However, when it comes to previously reported rises in agoraphobia, Dave has emphasised that it’s important to make a distinction between agoraphobia and general anxieties about the virus, and about heading back out into normal life.
Agoraphobia is that feeling of panic, and it creates panic with people who find it difficult to be in confined spaces or public spaces.
I’m not convinced that the anxiety related to going back out there into the normal routine is necessarily a presentation of agoraphobia. I think there’s quite a lot of academics saying that it’s similar to agoraphobia, but it’s not agoraphobia in its normally recognised form.
So what people are getting panicky about it the fact that they are going out into an environment that is potentially too dangerous for them because there’s a virus. And that’s causing anxiety for them, but that’s different to agoraphobia.
For me, although I do have practical concerns about the virus and post-lockdown life in general, my agoraphobic fears come from a different place entirely.
Over the years, I’ve managed to build myself up as someone who can navigate a variety of spaces which are admittedly a fair bit out of my comfort zone. I work as part of a loud, sociable news desk. I go out clubbing with friends. I push myself to join evening classes.
It’s been a slow process, but those who meet me today may not even be aware that once my life was very much contained within a scruffy student flat, often with many stale and similar days going by before I would venture outside.
Lockdown has brought with it a flood of painful memories. With striking clarity, I’m remembering the frustration and humiliation of feeling unable to do basic things, the horror of the wasted time I can never get back. Of staring into my phone to avoid a growing scream escaping while waiting for a bus.
I sometimes look at myself in the mirror nowadays, with my makeshift ‘loungewear’ and constantly slipper-ed feet, and see the person I once was just below the surface, nervous and pale and fidgety. I feel my fists begin to ball anxiously in the way they used to, nails digging into my palms.
During more anxious times, I have found myself doubting that I have ever ‘healed’ or ‘fixed myself’ in the tentative way I’ve long imagined I had, wondering whether I’ve simply just been pretending all these years in such a way that I’ve even managed to convince myself.
Like many things, being outside for someone like me takes practice, and I am feeling rusty with it. I’ve forgotten how I used to cope, used to thrive even, in the big, wide world. Had I truly changed or had it been a matter of exposing myself to uncomfortable situations, again and again and again?
When I was at my worst with my agoraphobia – and, to clarify, this is by no means good advice – I mostly relied on my boyfriend at the time as a human vessel to pour all my fears and anxious thoughts into. Looking back, I know my behaviour was unhealthy and at times downright unfair.
I would grab onto his sleeve on public transport like a stress ball, ring him when I had to walk by myself from one place to another, even when I had nothing in particular to say. When I’d lose sight of him in Sainsbury’s, I’d feel the rising panic of a child wandering too far away from their parent.
Now I’m alone, relationship-wise at least, and what’s more I’m older. A fully fledged adult with a job and worry lines who people expect to be able to handle things logically, and for the most part I do. But age and experience are sadly no barrier against fear.
From experience, I can tell you that relying on another person for this sort of instant comfort boost against agoraphobia is not really the best way to go about things in the long-term, and not just because that person might not always be there to clutch at.
The first thing I’d say is, look back at what did you do before. What helped you previously, if you’d had it before and you’ve overcome it in the past, what do you do to help manage it. Can those techniques work again? Can those strategies work again?
Gradual exposure is a good technique to work on to slowly, surely, one step at a time. Think of it as a ladder of success. So you could start off at the bottom where you simply can’t do it, and you build yourself up just one step at a time, until you’ve conquered that fear.
And a therapist will often work with you on gradual exposure, so that might be something you need to consider if it’s not something you can self manage.
I know what it’s like to stand at the very bottom of that ladder and not even realise there’s a way up, but it can and does get better, no matter how your own thoughts may eat away at you.
Ten years ago I used to have to grip my own arm tightly when I was out walking on my own, squeezing with all the pressure I felt at being out and exposed in the world. Five years ago, I used to have to work out in the corner of the gym, even during quieter hours, because it all just felt like so much.
Step by step I’ve built myself up, to the point where I’ve just bought tickets for my very first music festival. I have my fears still, and perhaps these will always be a part of me, but I know that there’s always a way forward. You’ve got this.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.